The UK’s negotiations with the European Union started with a proposal regarding the status of EU citizens in Britain after the country leaves the EU. One particular point in the proposal gives a flavour of things to come. It should worry anyone, not just EU citizens.
First, for a bit of context: Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to reduce net migration (the difference between people coming to the country to settle and those leaving the country) in the tens of thousands from the current hundreds of thousands.
Despite warnings that doing this will hurt the economy, she is determined to stick to her target. Probably even more so after the bad results of the snap election. Victory on the immigration front would make a certain part of the electorate warm to her.
However, people should be careful what they wish for. Buried in the EU citizens proposal is a dangerous precedent: that of retrospectively taking away citizens’ rights. The principle that no legislation applies retrospectively is crucial for investor confidence; this proposal has just broken it.
Here are the relevant paragraphs:
“The settled status application process for EU citizens will be separate from the current one for documents confirming EU permanent residence status. Permanent residence status is linked to the UK’s membership of the EU and so will no longer be valid after we leave.
If you already have a document certifying permanent residence, you will still need to apply for the new settled status document. The application process for people who need to do this will be as streamlined as possible.”
Under EU law, which is in force in Britain until the country’s departure from the EU after May 29, 2019, EU citizens who have spent five years in the UK automatically obtain permanent residence. They do not even need to obtain a document from the Home Office confirming this.
The fact that suddenly their permanent residence status will no longer be valid after Brexit amounts to the government simply taking away their rights.
This could push a lot of EU citizens to leave, disgusted with the suddenly precarious state in which they are thrown by the government. It’s probably what Prime Minister May’s government wants: their departure would reduce the net migration figure.
There are two big problems with this. The first is that the most likely to go will be the ones who can easily find jobs elsewhere, and that’s the highly skilled people, who are usually being paid higher salaries, and therefore pay higher taxes and do not need benefits.
Already, various opinion polls crop up showing that highly skilled EU citizens are contemplating leaving. Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a survey showing that 82% of the more than 5,700 Italians working in British academia are considering leaving the UK after the Brexit vote.
In the financial sector, some sort of outward migration is already taking place, although it’s a trickle, not a flood. Deutsche Bank will apparently move some operations to Frankfurt from London. There are other banks, too, that are looking at EU cities such as Dublin or Luxemburg.
The second problem is even bigger than the departure of highly skilled people. It has to do with the certainty that British citizens themselves can have that their own rights will be respected.
For now, some of the British probably feel safe in the belief that only foreigners are hurt by the government’s retrospective legislation. But with this precedent in place, who can guarantee that other rights, such as employment conditions to name but one, are safe?